Cincinnati’s Berlin Wall

Last night I went to a cocktail party in my building where one of the other guests had a little more wine than he probably should have.  He’s a big name attorney at one of the major law firms in town, very savvy about how the world really works in ways that I’ll never be.

Of course we were talking about what I’m always talking about these days: commercial real estate and politics, especially as it relates to Western & Southern.

“Wait til they tear down the old headquarters and you see the deal they get on their new building,” he said. “Queen City Square was nothing.”  Part of that circle of insiders who finds out about stuff before the rest of us, he’s seen details.  And when I told him that’s what I was trying to stop, the reason I’m spending so much time at City Hall these days, getting up before dawn every day to analyze the paper trail left in our public records – so that citizens can have a say in the deal before Council votes, he laughed.  “You go ahead and try, but you won’t be able to stop them.”

That’s what everybody says.  Western & Southern is too strong, political alliances at the city, county and state levels long-established.  They’ve got too much money.  And nobody ever wants their name associated with anything they tell me because everybody with any sense is scared to death of repercussions from the cabal that has pulled the decision-making strings behind the scenes since the Seventies.  I’m not afraid of much in life, but even I back away from sharing everything I’ve heard.  I don’t know what they could do to me since I’m not in business and I never want to run for public office – but I’d prefer not to find out.

These giant real estate deals take years and years to put together.  By the time Council votes, the outcome is a foregone conclusion forged by private interests in those infamous back rooms.  As far as development is concerned, there is no real democratic process, just the theater of one. In fact, the system is set-up to make sure voters can’t interfere.  It’s been this way for as long as anybody can remember and our elected officials work with the status quo or they don’t survive.

And yet. . . .

I won’t stop.  I can’t.  This is wrong.  We all know it’s wrong.

I believe the balance of power in this city can be changed.  I believe real democracy – the idea that every voice in a community is of equal importance, that we make our best decisions together through the messy process of public conversations about complicated issues that have no easy answers – real democracy is worth fighting for and even though I wish City Council could do this for us – they can’t.  This power is so entrenched that the will to change is going to have to come from a groundswell of Cincinnatians, people who usually don’t agree on much – Westsiders and Eastsiders, urbanists and neighborhood advocates, gay and straight, streetcar supporters and streetcar haters, black people and white people, rich and poor – all of us joining together because in our hearts we know that democracy is precious and we can’t afford to pretend anymore.

Tomorrow I am starting to interview attorneys.  If another big real estate deal goes through on an Emergency basis without public input, Cincinnati has to be prepared to take legal action. I don’t have the financial resources to fight the city’s legal department alone, so I’m asking everybody to get out your empty pickle jars and start saving pocket change. If we have to buy back our democracy, so be it.

In my lifetime, I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall come down, apartheid end, or gay friends getting married.  But all those things have happened.  And they happened because normal people like us stopped being afraid, stood up together and demanded change.

9 thoughts on “Cincinnati’s Berlin Wall

  1. Josiah Kaiser

    Who is this big name attorney? When you shine a lite a light in the darkness it shows the real form of the monsters which is usually far less scary than the shadow they project.

    What have you heard that you won’t share? I’d be much more motivated to donate to your legal protection fund to protect a hero than to contribute to an ethereal piggy bank to fund what-ifs.

    You have matches and can smell the gasoline of injustice… Why won’t you start the democratic fire of change? Yes, you might get burned (it is a sad truth of our times) but the Berlin Wall did not fall because of words but because enough people picked up sledge-hammers. Gay marriage did not come about because of the goodness of the elite but because enough people stood up and called bullshit on the preachers and politicians who spew hate. Apartheid did not end because those in power suddenly realized the error of their ways but because people like Nelson Mandela were willing to sit in prison for decades in the name of justice for people they never met.

    Words are wind and good intentions even less. But actions are worth following. So ACT! and I promise, you will not act alone. You have already indicated you believe the fight worth having, and in this post alone you demonstrate the ability to articulate your grievances and to identify the inequity that defines modern America. So, please, as an outsider looking in at a city I love, if you can help define the battlefield, then don’t resign yourself to stopping what comes “next” because it will be built upon the momentum of what happens now. Instead, fight the current crime, and, if nothing else, help set the precedent that will motivate an army to prevent the next abuse by the Cinci-stapo. Don’t be afraid. There is a legion that loves you standing behind you, but we only walk forward, so, like Lot’s wife, no looking back.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Your points are good, Josiah. I do not disagree with anything you say. As far as contributions to a legal defense fund, I sincerely hope it never comes to that and you never have to spend your hard-earned dollars on lawyers. A best case scenario would be elected officials open this issue up to public conversation without legal action.

      But City Council is a reactive body. They cannot, nor should they, take action based on the complaints of a single individual. So when I discovered disturbing patterns in public records that I felt morally compelled to do something about – I had to come up with a plan. Step A was to tell people what I’d found and why I was concerned. That’s this blog. I’ve met with Council Members and the Hamilton County Auditor. I’ve attended public hearings and testified. I’ve sought out leaders in the community. I tried to get professional journalists interested in the story, but real estate is big and messy, hard to fit into a single article appropriate for the general public.

      Walls do not come down overnight, just because a handful of people recognize an injustice. It’s a one step at a time process. This was mine. And little by little more citizens are coming forward to help. As awareness grows, more of us will take ownership of what we know, what we believe.

      It’s quite possible that you have more experience than I do and have a better plan for getting to a system that’s fair to all the members of our community. If so, please share it. As always, all ideas are invited and welcome. But until we form a structure around this movement, I’ll have to keep soldiering on as best I can – and right now, that means protecting the identities of the people who tell me what they know. Luckily there are enough facts in the public records that speak for themselves. I hope you’ll read those wonkier posts and tell me what you think.

  2. Bonnie J. Speeg

    Is the reason for not naming that lawyer the same reason I won’t name him here; because frankly, I don’t like to type his name? It may be the same one…as in, he seemed to know the bottom-line detail on what WS is planning…and well, though it smacks of unethical though not illegal, nepitism….the lawyer guy I’m thinking of is well, just the one to make a remark like ‘Wait till they tear down the old headquarters….etc.’ and ‘You go ahead and try, you won’t be able to stop them’. That sounds so close up and personal to my days gone by with circumstances I’ll keep a bit to myself; though I can say it has to do with lack of integrity, and more ruthless, unethical professional behavior I’m still reeling from 12 years in. May the best (wo)man win on this one, Kathy.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Not THAT lawyer, Bonnie. A friend of mine – who is not always right – but usually is. Good guy. Who wishes for nothing more than to be able to retire and forget all aabout practicing law.


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